India is the world’s sixth largest coffee producer - behind Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, Colombia and Ethiopia - boasting a total production in 2010 of some 5 million bags. It exports around 70% of this - with exports of greens roughly split between 25% Arabica and 75% Robusta.
As in Brazil, there is a growing domestic market for coffee in India, as café chains spring up in urban areas to cater to the burgeoning middle class. Coffee consumption almost doubled between 1998 and 2008, and is increasing by some 5%-6% annually. The potential for growth is enormous: India’s middle class currently numbers some 50 million people, but by 2025 it is predicted to have expanded to 583 million people - some 41% of the population.
Coffee was introduced to India during the late seventeenth century. The story goes that an Indian pilgrim to Mecca – known as Baba Budan – smuggled seven beans back to India from Yemen in 1670 (it was illegal to take coffee seeds out of Arabia at the time) and planted them in the Chandragiri hills of Karnataka. With the arrival of the British Raj in the mid-nineteenth century, commercial coffee farming flourished. Initially Arabica was widespread, but huge infestations of coffee rust disease led many farms to switch to Robusta or Arabica/Liberica hybrids.
Following a period of state regulation of the coffee industry from 1942 onwards, the market was liberalised in 1995. Growers are now free to sell their produce wherever they choose.
Today, India has around 388,000 hectares under coffee - some 70% of which is grown on small farms sized less than 10 hectares. The majority (90%+) is still produced in the traditional growing regions in the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The rest is grown in the more recently developed areas of Andra Pradesh and Orissa in the Eastern Ghats; and the North Eastern ‘Seven Sister’ states of Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.
India’s coffee is grown under a two-tier mixed shade canopy of evergreen leguminous trees, often interspersed with spices and fruit crops including pepper, cardamom, vanilla, orange and banana trees. (For a full discussion of shade techniques, see the longer analysis in our ‘Articles’ section on this website.) Most Arabica farms lie at between 700 and 1,200 metres above sea level.
The main coffee varietals cultivated are:
Cauvery - an Indian sub variety of Catimor (a Bourbon descendant).
Kent - a mutation of Typica, planted widely by Indian growers from the 1920s.
S795 - a hybrid bred by Indian botanists from Kent and S228 (a hybrid of C. Arabica and C. Liberica) varietals in the 1940s and now widespread. This varietal is also popular in Indonesia, where it is known as ‘Jember’.
SL 9 - a derivative of a cross between the Ethiopian Arabica varietal ‘Tafarikela’, and ‘Hybrido-de-Timor’ (a natural hybrid of C. arabica and C. canephora).
The harvest in India usually runs from November to March each year. The coffees may be processed using either the natural or washed methods, known locally as ‘Cherry’ and ‘Parchment’. The coffee is dried using patios, tables or, on some of the larger estates, mechanical dryers.
India is also the creator of the famed ‘monsooned malabar’ - a process unique to India, with a lengthy history and a distinctive, potent cup. It dates back to coffee farming under British colonial rule, when during the several months that it took to ship green coffee from India to Europe, the humidity and sea winds caused the beans to swell and age. As transport improved and the beans suffered less from the elements en route, European coffee-drinkers noticed that the coffee was losing the character and distinctive, bold flavour they were used to.
So, a new process was devised to replicate the conditions that produced this singular coffee. To create a ‘monsooned’ crop, natural sun-dried green coffee is stored in open-sided warehouses on the coast, which allow moist tropical air from the monsoon winds to blow through the storage area. Over a 2 to 3 month period, the beans absorb moisture, lose a degree of their natural acidity and swell to around double their original size, becoming brittle and pale. The process starts when the monsoon season begins in June/July and is usually completed by the end of October. The result is an earthy, pungent, low acidity cup, which is often used to add body and weight to fine espresso blends.